Never Let Me Go
Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield & Sally Hawkins
By Nick Bland
Roughly halfway through Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go the audience has its credulity tested to breaking point. The moment in question assembles Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. Struggling across an apocalyptically bleak coastline, Knightley’s character Ruth shrieks at her two school friends: ‘We all know it… We’re modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps… If you want to look for possibles… look in the gutter. That’s where we come from.’ The film industry has a damaging, if perhaps understandable compulsion towards beauty; but this is absurd. To pick three marvels of human form and suggest they’re built from the gutter is almost insulting to the spectator. More importantly, it undermines Alex Garland’s otherwise moving and neatly managed screenplay. There is a basic problem in this adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel: the comprehensibility of the book doesn’t seem fit seamlessly into film. Where the novel can explain its complexities (summarily that each child is a clone, constructed in order to provide vital organs to his/her orginal), the film hasn’t time to struggle with sensible explanation. Its attempt to do so – embodied in the scene at the beach – is knowingly superficial. Nonetheless, film does offer us a fresh drama. With performances as intelligent as those from all three leads, Never Let Me Go’s compelling energy serves as its greatest strength.
Romanek’s film guts the novel for its essential narrative. It centralizes a love-story that involves Kathy (Mulligan), Tommy (Garfield), and Ruth (Knightly). All three attend Hailsham, an idealized English boarding school, but with major caveats. As we learn from Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), the temporary guardian, Hailsham students have no possibilities: they will never become bus conductors, sportsmen or racing drivers; their future has been mapped out inevitably. The children at Hailsham have no future because, raised in a kind of mocking dystopia, they are bred as a sacrificial elite. Hailsham is the severance package. The limits to the students’ lives, and their early containment in a world of childish naiveté, make the film’s tragedy all the more poignant. But its tragedy is not the impending and inescapable sacrifices demanded of Hailsham students, it is more focally the story of Kathy and Tommy.
Tommy, an early target for schoolboy taunts and pranks, is befriended by Kathy near the beginning of their time at Hailsham. Their intimacy is a strange one, always shadowed by physical potential. The title of film and book come from an audio cassette single that Tommy gives to Kathy. In the film, the song articulates Kathy’s feelings for Tommy. The young Kathy, played by Isobele Meikel-Small (who throughout gives a performance of stunning maturity) dreamily hugs her pillow as she listens to the music, projecting heady world of precocious adult feeling with brilliant comedy. Soon after this, Ruth, Kathy’s other intimate friend, transforms her relationship to Tommy, moving from antagonist to girlfriend. The bond persists beyond Hailsham to the domesticated realm of ‘the cottages’. There, Kathy’s role is characterized by opposition to Ruth. Her release is her enduring friendship with Tommy, but her wider ostracism leads her to seek a career as a ‘carer’ to donors, thus delaying her own donation.
The final stage of the film retrieves the threesome. They have been separated for approximately a decade, Tommy – lively in spite of two donations, Ruth – nearly dead. Ruth apologizes for what is by now painfully obvious: her having prevented Kathy and Tommy from forming the infinitely more meaningful attachment.
Not everything can be reduced to the written word. In its own right, this is a magnificent film.
The Trailer to Never Let Me Go.